Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Take and Read: Book review of Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri JM Nouwen

Looking for a Christmas present for your favorite clergy person or other readers of devotional writings?   May I suggest this new book collecting letters from Henri JM Nouwen, among the 20th century's most endearing Roman Catholic writers whose ministry and witness reached across ecumenical and religious/not so religious lines.  

This book review will appear in print in early 2017 for "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy ( 

Take and read!

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life.  Gabrielle Earnshaw, editor.  (New York, NY: Convergent, 2016).  ISBN #978-1-101-90635-4.  $24.00. 

Henri JM Nouwen occupies an appreciable part of my devotional reading in college and seminary.  I count his book “In the Name of Jesus” among the most helpful in my early days of discerning a call to ministry. His journals and writings welcomed many Christians (and a number of not so religious persons) into his journey as a person seeking God’s love, embracing his own vulnerability and finding where he might find his deep calling and the world’s need connecting. 

After his death in 1996, his writings remain in print with a few “new” works culled from his writings and talks.  His literary legacy is being furthered by this new series of books featuring his correspondence with various persons, some well-known and others just drawn by his writings to send a note and ask his thoughts and counsel.  His generous spirit and gregarious approach to life resulted in a high volume of letters returned from friends and strangers, offering his thoughts personally with no thought to using a form letter or citing his schedule for not being able to respond personally.

Nouwen retained every piece of correspondence, resulting in over 16,000 letters, postcards, faxes and greeting cards gaining his response and later the challenge for archive preparation and this new series of publications.  When Gabrielle Earnshaw began her work with the Nouwen papers, she dealt with this incredible volume of mail.  Fifteen years later, sixty-five linear feet of material is now archived at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in Canada.  Future readers of Nouwen’s correspondence are indebted to Earnshaw’s careful and labor intensive work and St Michael’s College’s willingness to be the custodian for this correspondence to be available to scholars and others interested in reading the material first-hand.

This first volume is arranged chronologically into three eras:  1973-1985, 1986-1989, and 1990-96.  The letters chosen for this collection revolve around Nouwen’s correspondence around spiritual life matters.  Whether it is a parent grieving a child, a friend dealing with a health ailment or a colleague pondering some form of spiritual quandary, Nouwen’s letters are engaging, as if sitting across the table from his correspondent face to face.  (NOTE:  Appropriately, the letters published within the collection have been cleared for publication and public dissemination.)

Nouwen shares his own wrestling with matters, temporary and ongoing, practicing his vulnerability as much as he spoke about it.  During the 1970s, he wrestled with vocation, spending time back in his native Holland (only to opt to return to the US permanently), receiving a tenure track position at Yale Divinity School (yet wrestling with whether or not he should enter into monastic life as a Trappist) and wearying himself with a heavy speaking schedule (while pondering if he should spend more time withdrawn in order to pray and to write). 

The collection of letters trace Nouwen’s journey already in his previously published works:  seeking a place to call his home that also summons him to be the “Henri”, the “self” most desired by God.  As most readers know, a tenured Yale professor, temporary monk and missionary later in Latin America, would land in the midst of the L’Arche Community in Toronto, living as a priest to a community of disabled adults and their caregivers, living in community with one another.  The letters collected herein speak to that struggle as well as the contentment he eventually finds.

For most clergy, such internal arguments go on for years, shaping vocation or perhaps stunting it.  Nouwen keeps his tensions in perspective, wanting to be erring on the side of what God might be calling him to do.  In a side note in a 1979 letter, Nouwen shares, “I think I am going to buy myself Butler’s four volumes of the Lives of the Saints; the best way for me to get over my endless distractions is to look at God through the mirror of his saints.  Maybe later I will receive the grace to speak to Him and be with Him more directly” (p. 37).

Reading through Nouwen’s letters will be a matter of perspective of what value the reader has for this collection.  What letters of Nouwen speak to me will be different for other readers.  Some may come to this volume finding the letters marginally of interest.  Others will find a great treasure trove of spiritual wisdom with tic marks and marginalia as an insight resonates from a letter written decades ago.  Yet the beauty of Nouwen’s writings is that he has a good word for any reader, religious and otherwise.

I look forward to future volumes of this remarkable series of Nouwen’s correspondence.  Even twenty years after his passing, Nouwen continues to tend souls and offer insights into our lives even as he was wrestling with what mattered most in his own.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent One: Liberating Eschatology (Matthew 24:36-44)

When you looked at the sermon title "Liberating Eschatology", perhaps there was an unfamiliar word: “eschatology”. It is a theological term, a word that helps define the faith. The “…ology” part is easy enough, meaning “the study of”, but then there is that first part “eschat...” that we have to address. Oddly enough, “eschatology” is better translated as “the study of the End”. The early Church had a variety of views on what would happen, and quite honestly, many of the New Testament writers presume that “the End” would happen very soon, that is, in their lifetime, or soon enough thereafter. Two millennia later, we are around, looking at these texts and wondering how to “read” them appropriately.

In the hands of some Christians over the centuries, to speak of the End has become the seedbed for some increasingly bizarre theories about what will happen. Over the centuries, stories of destruction, desolation, and the Devil have framed a way of belief for some Christians. Other Christians look at these texts and consider them less relevant, perhaps the “odd texts” that we skip over as we read our Bibles. Should the church bother with “eschatology”?

I suggest that we must talk of our beliefs about “the End”, but we must recognize that with all matters of interpretation and belief, we exercise a degree of humility. There have been too many instances (past and present) of excessive interpretation and malformed belief, but to say that our faith can be fine without talk of “the End” is to do even more harm to one’s faith and practice. This morning, let me help “liberate” eschatology a bit so we might hear the Gospel text (and others like it) with due reverence.

Let me offer two stories along the way with some commentary:

A few years ago, I was standing in line to check out at one of those warehouse stores like BJ’s. Just behind me, I heard a young woman read aloud the name of a book she picked up. It was the latest volume of the Left Behind books, a series of books about the apocalyptic end and the return of Christ. Ever the curious sort, I turned around slightly to see what she would do next. She read a little bit of the dust jacket’s description of the book, and she wrinkled up her nose a bit, “I don’t need that scary stuff!” She tossed it back where she found it: upon a pile of the same book, five feet high, sitting on one of those heavy wooden palates that require a forklift to move them. I thought, “Apparently, some folks do need that scary stuff”.

My observation is this: anxious times often produce anxious eschatology. The Left Behind series began publication in the years leading up to the millennium. The books reflect a certain take on eschatology, but an undercurrent of fear informs the writers, their plot reflecting a belief that something ominous is coming.  As a friend who takes this line of thinking seriously said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!”

Putting my own cards on the table, I am skeptical of eschatology derived out of a place of deep fear, as such interpretations have a degree of resignation creeping in.  Thus, faith becomes an affair of watching and waiting, but with an edge of disregard for much of anything in the here and now. It can be understandable that such a view can be attractive, especially to persons for whom the suffering and brokenness of this world seems to be pervasive, or when world events are reaching critical (or that is your perception). Nonetheless, fear-suffused belief does not ultimately lead in a good direction.
So, what should we do if we wish to claim eschatology as part of our belief but not freight it with the wrong baggage?

Another story to help us along the way:

Once, I discovered a store with a large collection of bumper stickers for sale. While I never use them, I enjoy reading them. The box held a few political slogans here (your choice of red state or blue state politics to skewer), a few stickers protesting or supporting the War in Iraq there, and a few promoting just about every social cause imaginable. In the back of the box of bumper stickers were the ones with religious themes, including one that read: “JESUS IS COMING! LOOK BUSY!”

Eschatology is more rightly concerned with the return of Christ and the drawing to a close of this present age. Rather than trading upon the edge of these texts (especially those of Revelation with its terrible battles), the better path is to go back and question the friend who said, “What good is the future?” A good response is to say, “The future is in God’s hands. What more could we want?”
However, the bumper sticker’s sarcasm highlights the question that goes without asking when people speak of eschatology. Rather than keep up appearances (“look busy!”), eschatology beckons to the Christian believer to take up a way of discipleship that is expectant as well as tethered down to the ground as the body of believers called Church, Christ’s visible reminder of Christ’s reign being at hand. We are called to a faith that says, “Jesus is coming! Live faithfully!”

In this passage from Matthew 24, if you read through the lens provided by AM radio preachers, you see a passage about “the Rapture”, a New Testament idea that the faithful will be taken up into God’s embrace, which has been laden with a lot of modern era interpretation. If you read this text through the lens of fear or anxiety, you miss what Jesus is really saying. Jesus affirms that the “Father” alone knows when the End shall come. Thus, live as if it will come suddenly, but do not try to ask questions or find answers about these matters. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes, “Jesus tells [his disciples] how they must learn to wait in this time between the times” (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 204).

The friend who said, “What good is the future? It will be all over soon!” misses the invitation to be a disciple living fully in the way of discipleship. To hope for God’s end is part of faith, to wait expectantly is part of faith, but to give up or grow idle or withdrawn is a distortion of faith. It is as misfortunate as the people who spend their time feverishly looking for “the End Times” at hand in the latest headlines of the New York Times or the latest chapter in a book that predicts this political movement or incident is the lynchpin of the doom about to unfold. Hauerwas says,

Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand how they must live when their questions should not have been asked and cannot be answered. Or put differently, Jesus is trying to help the disciples live when his life must shape any questions to be asked. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 204)

You and I deal with the various types of baggage that this holiday season (or perhaps just this week alone) seems to have piled on our backs. In the midst of the cacophony of life as we know it, we are summoned to discipleship by the Son of Man, whose very appearance shall be the end of what we know and fear and bring about the peace that eludes us, even in our modern delusion of such things being solved by policies, superior military strength, and power.

We abide by Christ’s call to live the life of faith well, shaped by a belief that Jesus is indeed Lord of our lives. We are called to humility that God alone knows when these things shall draw to a close. We live in trust and abundant hope that when this day comes to pass, we will be found in the midst of the work of Christ, faithful ‘til the End.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reign of Christ Sunday: King Quixote (Luke 23:33-43)

In last week's Gospel reading, we heard the stark words of Jesus as he predicted the destruction of the Temple.  This week, we hear Jesus speaking in the midst of great pain and misery as he hangs crucified.   For persons expecting the gospel reading to be “Thanksgiving” or “nearly Christmas”, instead we hear a text oft-heard around Easter.  What does “Good Friday” have to do with our lives, as we cannot wait for those door-busting “Black Friday” sales?

I found myself a bit puzzled why this text was suggested for this day.  Not only does it sound “off key” when our department stores and radio stations are switching over to Christmas muzak, Christ crucified appears with little apology, the tragic breaking into the midst of a time more given over to cheer.  Why now?

During the course of the year, Christianity has crafted a cycle of seasons to help mark different sacred times in the Church’s life and worship.  The Sunday just before Advent is considered “the last” of a given year, with Advent as the rather appropriate “beginning”, anticipating and celebrating Christ’s coming.  So this Sunday, the one just before the Advent candles grace the altar once more, we celebrate the kingship or ruling power of Christ.  This is the Sunday when we think of Christ the triumphant, the Word who is indeed the “final” word of this life and Creation alike.  We sing grand hymns and hear the celebratory praise of Colossians, extolling the fullness of Christ’s claim to Creation, old and New.

Yet, when the gospel writer enters, Luke clears his throat and offers another sort of moment of high drama.  The crowds jeer, the disciples scatter, and Jesus upon the cross, with death very close at hand.  Why today does this story appear?

In college, our theatre department produced the musical Man of La Mancha.  Somehow, we were able to put together the entire musical in about four weeks.  The set was still being finished right up until the first performance.  I was a bit uncertain of what cues I needed for the songs, as we had only worked with the full orchestra just during the week of production.  Yet, as they say, the show must go on!

            I joke that working in a small university theatre with limited funding was part of the great training experiences I had for small church ministry.  Somehow, we’re still working on projects right up till the curtain is to rise, and small churches know quite a bit about being unfunded.  And just like my college theatre experience years ago, no matter what happens during a week, there’s always a Sunday morning awaiting.  The robe must go on!

            Musical rehearsals are a challenge, as you have to work out a number of things, rather than just your lines and blocking.  As we worked our way through both acts of the musical, the actor playing Don Quixote had the toughest role.  Was Quixote a mad man who saw things in a delusional sense, or was he the only sane one?  His great line was that he wanted to see “the world not as it is, but as it ought to be”.

Every night at rehearsal, I never lost the moment of wonder when Quixote would rise up and say this.  Even at last performance, the line did not fail to seem electric to me, an old man rising up against the same old, same old of this world, ready to tilt at windmills.  The actor playing Quixote played the scene as if each word of his great line drew energy and life back into his aged and battered body. 

Such a line made splendid sense, a line from a modern musical that resonates with the ancient faith we are called to keep.

In England, the city of Coventry sustained significant air raid damage when German planes bombed this town heavily.  At city center, the magnificent cathedral was destroyed, a sad loss for the parish as well as the citizenry.  In the midst of this dreadful war, in the midst of the destruction and death, the fear and the anxiety, in the midst of great international conflict, the very next day after the cathedral sustained massive damage, the priests found people of all denominations gathering in the ruins.  Rather than shaking fist and vowing revenge, the people gathered to pray.

The cathedral website offers a word on what happened next:

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction.  Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.  It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Dick Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred.  This has led to the cathedral's Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.

The congregation of Coventry Cathedral would later engraved a saying along one of the sanctuary walls that survived the bombing.  The saying reads:  “Father, forgive.”

It could be argued that they chose to see the world not as it is.  You could even claim they were a bit foolish, placing their hope in reconciliation and peace.  The story of Coventry Cathedral was marked by the great loss, yet they found a different take on the story than one might expect.  Indeed, another prominent feature of the cathedral ruins is the former altar area where some charred roof timbers were placed.  They were found after the fires subsided, two pieces of roof supports that fell to the floor below.  Why were these retained?  They are in the shape of the cross.

            Curious, isn’t it?  This story of great loss turns with the remarkable “plot twist” of Easter.  While the New Testament has its grand moments of praise to Christ, the gospel reading today reminds us that this great narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that defines the faith is not a story left up in the lofty clouds.  Indeed, there is a visceral dimension to Christianity, inescapably rooted in life “as we know it”.  Christ’s death was not just the stuff of stories perhaps some of you learned on the old Flannel graph years ago.  This story is all too three-dimensional, played out on a hill not too far away from the despair and angst of human existence.

            Christian faith is a religion with its feet on the ground, even as we claim to be a people looking expectantly for Christ to return from the heavens above.  The story of the crucifixion goes right along with the grand epistolary words of praise. The shadow of Good Friday and the euphoria of Easter are meant to be part of our Advent/Christmas observances.  We find ourselves called to be a people who know how the story is going to end.  The plot of life inevitably weaves its way through the valley of the shadow of death, yet we look forward to a much different ending.

            On this day, we celebrate the King who comes foremost as servant.  Even as he is dying, Christ is said to offer words of grace and welcome to the fellow crucified alongside him who confesses his belief.  Christ, the Servant King, appears as a curious figure to us, as we are well educated by 24-hour news cycles to live by the competing sound bites and the images we are persuaded to believe in crafted by the myth makers behind the thrones of this world.  Christ the Servant King, or Christ the peaceable Ruler, offers a quixotic take on what really matters about existence.  His teachings presume more grace and no “getting even”.  His healings presume all persons have dignity and worth, rather than bearing the brunt of majority opinion or the invisibility rendered by reigning economic forces.  Even as his last day is fading down into remaining hours, then dwindling minutes, Jesus demonstrates a life hard to live, yet imperative to follow if we wish to live our lives in faithfulness to God.

    On this last Sunday of the “Christian year”, we hear words of praise and stories difficult to hear side by side.  What better way to bring things to a close than an epistle writer giddy with joy about the Christ triumphant?  What better story to tell than a gospel writer telling the good news that cannot ignore the reality that Jesus’ crown and authority comes in the strange yet merciful story of staring into the very face of death and seeing a greater force at work than anything good or ill the cosmos could throw at us?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ways to Worship When December 25 Is a Sunday

A lay leader called with a problem I suspicion some church leaders are also wrestling with: a likely low attendance on the last Sunday of the year (aka "Christmas Day", December 25).  He asked for some ideas about Lessons & Carols, a way to have an easier service working with limited numbers and likely weary pastors and organists.

While not necessarily created with small churches in mind, the Lessons and Carols service can be adapted to fit.  I realize this may be heresy to some readers, given the elegant origins of the service.  It is indeed a sublime service for large choirs, rumbling pipe organs and a great crowd ready to sing boisterously when a popular Christmas carol is offered as a congregational hymn in the midst of great pomp and formalism.

The tradition of the Lessons & Carols service is nearly a century old, first held by Kings’ College in Cambridge, UK. You can read about the history of this via the College’s website and view what the “mother church” of this tradition has offered in recent years with PDFs of worship bulletins (1997 to present).


You can also hear recent BBC recordings. Look particularly at the special carol commissioned in 2015 to offer reflection on the world refugee crisis and the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the flight from danger undertaken by the Holy Family.

Calvin College and the related seminary (Grand Rapids, MI) offers a great website ( of worship resources, particularly in the more Reformed tradition.

For Baptists, it depends on which church, so I suspicion that elements of this website might be helpful for you to bookmark for treasure troves to explore for present and future worship planning. They offer via this link below a copy of several years’ worth of the College’s own Lessons & Carols, where there’s a thematic variation each year. Ergo, it again serves as a touchstone for different ideas around the same concept:

The United Methodist Book of Worship has one available to review online:

I suggest if you explore this with a congregation, read through the Lessons outlined by the form and then spend time looking at your church hymnal to see how your hymnal may or may not lend itself. I like to spend the first half avoiding anything that’s too “Christmas carol” (overly familiar) and give honor to the more pensive “Advent hymns”.

I have worked in churches where the hymnal’s editorial decisions limited the Advent hymns and stressed a higher number of the “usual suspect” Christmas carols, so it may be a choice to bring in a hymn from another source (with due copyright clearances obtained, if not in public domain!).

For some smaller churches trying to sort out the Christmas Day service when numbers may be fewer, this could help provide a different way to do a “Christmas Day hymn sing”. You could add in the elements of a pastoral prayer, an offering and perhaps forgo a sermon for the morning, focusing on the Lessons to share the abundant Good News of Christ.